Tuesday 23 January 2018

Brent Pope: Leinster can take leaf out of Axel’s playbook and outwit Montpellier

Read Brent Pope's exclusive column ever week in The Herald

Sean O'Brien returns to Leinster's starting XV this week
Sean O'Brien returns to Leinster's starting XV this week

Brent Pope

Winning rugby is not always about out-muscling your opponent, it is about out-smarting them as well.

In a week when fans have been devastated by the loss of Munster legend Anthony Foley, it is worth remembering that was exactly what he brought to Munster’s game-plan, especially as a player.

Foley had a knack of reading the opposition, and knowing when you should speed the game up or run down the clock. You must be able to pin-point opposition strengths and weaknesses and tailor your game-plan accordingly. It seems pretty obvious but many coaches continue to play the same way week in, week out, regardless of who they are playing. 

A few years ago All Black coach Steve Hansen and his management team knew that a time had come when they could not compete with the physicality of the likes of France and South Africa.

The All Blacks set about building the blueprint of the modern rugby forward – a lighter, multi-skilled player that could move the likes of the Springbok pack around the field at such pace that their physical game-plan and superior size no longer mattered as much.

New Zealand’s loose forwards now all look like they have come off a manufacturer’s conveyer belt –  rangy, athletic physiques rather than just hulking masses of gym produced muscle.

Leo Cullen is developing similar types of athletes in Leinster. Despite having a nice balance to his back-row last weekend against Castres, he will be very concerned about the amount of turnovers Leinster coughed up in good scoring positions in the RDS.

As I predicted last week, Castres seemed disinterested in many areas of the game and at times only committed single numbers to defend Leinster rucks and mauls.

Montpellier away on Sunday (1.0) is a whole different task, and even Castres’ South African scrum-half Rory Kocott said that “at home Montpellier are a different animal”, implying that Leinster won’t get the easy ride that an unmotivated Castres gave them.

Any team that contains a who’s who of Southern Hemisphere stars such as Joseph Tomani, Nadolo Nemani, Francois Steyn, Nick White, Pierre Spies, Bismarck du Plessis, Jan du Plessis, Ben Botica and others under the guidance of World Cup-winning Springbok coach Jake White will obviously be dangerous.

White has been criticised in recent years for turning Montpellier into a South African team, both in terms of selection and style. But neither he nor the club owner are bothered as long as they win. French rugby has become about prestige rather than the development of a strong rugby nation and the sugar daddy club owners don’t care about the development of the game.

Despite losing to a last-minute kick in Northampton last weekend, Montpellier already find themselves in a must-win situation against Leinster, and although losing winger Benjamin Fall through injury and calling in ex-Irish scrumhalf Tomás O’Leary as cover, Montpellier will field incredibly strong.

Their supporters, who don’t travel in numbers, will now demand a winning performance at home. But Montpellier can be predictable, and the very fact that they are using ex-Springbok Francois Steyn in the centre indicates that they will crash the middle and try to release quick ball to their dynamic Fijian finishers.

Leinster need to improve quickly in certain areas. They will not be given the same latitude around the rucks and mauls as against Castres, so to beat Montpellier at home, or even salvage a valuable losing bonus point, Leinster have to employ a much wider game-plan.

That means using their loose forwards wider out than last week. French loose forwards – and South Africans – tend to be fetchers rather than ball-carriers, they operate close in and they tend to be good at the turnover on the ground or the tackle.

Stretch them wider and they can struggle. When was the last time we saw a French or South African national side with backs and forwards interlinking in open play after three or four phases? They are too structured and tend to rely on big ball-carrying No 8s like Spies, Louis Picomoles or Castres’ Alex Tulou to do most of the damage.

If Leinster can chop down the big ball-carriers and get over the ball quickly, they can slow Montpellier down and prevent them lifting the ball off the ground to create a driving maul.

Castres did not get any real momentum in their driving maul game last week so in an area that was questionable for Leinster against Munster the week previous, it will definitely raise its head again.

Leinster must commit greater numbers to the breakdowns and then be well organised should Montpellier start to maul. That means much better body positions than we saw against Munster.

Leinster need a quick sacking of the ball-carrier and better communication in the maul. It is little use going into a driving maul unless you identify exactly where the ball is. One of the best sides at defending a rolling maul last year was Connacht, who were often presented with much larger packs. Pat Lam had his players pick out exactly where they should go in, and then go in on the ball.

Johnny Sexton’s replacement last week, Joey Carbery, gets better with each outing, but Sexton’s ability to soak up pressure, his greater experience in France and his ability to kick for goal means his return is crucial to a Leinster performance.

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